Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Hot Mess

If we're friends on Steam, (and if we're not, add me; I'm Sarcasmancer there too,) you may have noticed that I've been playing a lot of Hotline Miami lately. Even more than Dishonored, which I raved about not two weeks ago. There's a couple reasons for that. Primarily, I have the attention span of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. Secondarily, I've gotten very serious about a secret writing project that doesn't leave me much time for marathon gaming sessions, and this game is well-suited for shorter play. And finally, it is bloody good.

A vibrant cover that gives you a pretty good idea of what you're in for.

Hotline Miami is what might happen if Tarantino decided to design, write and direct a videogame after dropping acid. Various voices on the internet have whispered that Drive is a more prominent influence, but I haven't seen the film, so I can't really speak on that connection. The game is set in the late 80s of Miami, where you play as a letterman jacket-wearing lowlife, who must don animal masks and murder buildings full of other murderers at the behest of cryptic messages on your answering machine.

Now, in the context of videogames, mass murder isn't really that shocking.  It's pedestrian in fact. From GTA to Ratchet and Clank you mow down enemies by the dozen. Even Nintendo, the Disney of entertainment software, has you kill hundreds of enemies in a given playthrough of Zelda, Mario or even Kirby. What's shocking about Hotline Miami is the messy way those deaths are handled. In fact, the entire game is messy on several levels, but remarkably clean where it counts.

The game has an intentionally pixelated aesthetic that invokes an era of lesser graphical fidelity. This was a brilliant artistic decision. It echoes the style of videogames of the late 80s setting, it is an aesthetic that is technically and economically feasible for an independent developer and most importantly, it insulates the player from the game's extreme violence with a much-needed level of abstraction.

And that is the second way it is messy. You will see pixelated blood, guts and bits of brain. Occasionally an enemy will drag himself across the ground before dying. You will bludgeon, slash and shoot gangsters with a huge array of melee weapons, sporting goods, firearms and power tools. In this respect, it is undeniably similar to Rockstar's infamous Manhunt series; games that are literally styled after snuff films.

 however, is vividly rendered in 3D without any stylistic buffer and I don't play it for the same reason I don't watch torture porn: it disgusts me. I don't believe the violence will make rational people into monsters, but there isn't enough art and imagination there to make the experience feel rewarding instead of gross. Admittedly, Hotline Miami sits on the ledge of my limits.

So why play it? Like Super Meat Boy, it pairs brutally unforgiving difficulty with instant 1-button resurrection that gets you back into the action in seconds. You will die a lot. If you are like me, you will die an embarrassing amount. Most people can complete all 15 missions about 6 hours or so, but I think I've already clocked in twice that much time, and I still have a couple levels left.  Dying so much and resurrecting so easily allows you to see past the game's messy wrapper and appreciate its incredibly refined core-system: It is a puzzle game masquerading as an action game.

Each mission is broken up into a series of encounters which boil down to ridiculous runs of skillful twitch reflexes and the dumbest of dumb luck, or meticulously choreographed strategy and cheap tricks that exploit the predictable enemies. In most missions, you will do a mix of both. And the sense of relief and triumph you feel when you've completely cleared a level is enormous. I like this game better than Meat Boy, because while it demands excellence, it also indulges player improvisation to a greater degree. You have a variety of animal masks you can wear, which will subtly alter your character's abilities, and you also have a ridiculously large arsenal to draw from for your dark tasks. No two plays are alike, even when you play the same mission over for a higher score.

The last way in which the game is messy is the story. Your involvement with the voices on the answering machine are left open to interpretation, and these already-murky waters are further muddled by both surreal dream sequences and waking hallucinations. Toward the end of the game, you encounter talking corpses (who are apparently only there to tell you to fuck off), and there is also a last-minute change in protagonists. There is also a surprising moment of vulnerability early on though, when you rescue a girl from one of your crime scenes, and allow her to live in your apartment. Spoiler Alert: that doesn't end well. Those moments suggest the game is trying to call itself out, and point out just how screwed up this all is, but it never really coalesces into anything meaningful, because you are back on the mandatory murder train in seconds. It gets points for self-awareness, but loses some for failing to make a salient point. Also, the secret ending you can unlock provides a psuedo-political explanation that comes from far left field and fails to add any real depth to the experience. That said, it does raise questions and incite emotional reactions in the player, which is more than you can say for a lot of AAA titles out there.

Another area where the game excels is in the soundtrack. Each song alternates between pleasantly catchy and grating, so it pretty much captures the 80s perfectly. The mission music is high energy and frenetic, like the gameplay. The track that plays after each mission sounds like the formic ideal of a supermarket's ambiance filtered through a game console. And the song that blares in your apartment after every mission manages to be soothing and laid back, despite, you know, the blaring.

So would I recommend Hotline Miami? Kids obviously shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it. And neither should immature adults (particularly political alarmists who will refuse to look past the blood). Even with those caveats, I can't recommend it to general audiences, not because the game is dangerous, or because I believe it will make people more dangerous than they already are, but because most people don't have the masochistic mentality of an old school gamer. It takes a special kind of person to enjoy dying 20 times in a single firefight. If that sounds like you though, and you're looking for an experience that is both focused and messy, I can't recommend it highly enough.

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